Running a Hybrid Auction: 6 Best Practices for Nonprofits

Before 2020 and COVID, the status quo for nonprofit auctions was simple: Have an event, include an auction, invite your sponsors, donors, and supporters, allow them to bid on the auction, call the event a success, and go home. Then, repeat next year. Same characters, same programming, maybe better wine.

But when the pandemic descended on all of us, event managers had to scramble to find a solution to make even a fraction of their fundraising budgets for the year: no more event status-quo.

As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and when no one could go to events, the events came to us in the form of virtual experiences.

Now that in-person events are back, you might think the virtual experience will be gone forever. But before you turn the page on having virtual fundraising events, consider the benefits of going hybrid. Donors can join you in person or online, broadening your geographical reach, including more people, and possibly increasing the number of bids on your auction items or even the amount of donations made to your cause.

There is so much potential with hybrid auctions to help you meet action items identified in your strategic plan. We’re going to walk you through six best practices for running one to set you up for success.

1. Identify your audience

The first step to any successful event is to identify the audience you’re trying to reach. Who are your guests? What do they do for a living? What do they like to do in their free time? Are they a Gen X crowd or more of a Boomer audience? Do many of them know one another and share similar interests? It will help in the long run if you consider questions like these when planning the structure of your event.

The type of guest will influence how you communicate, the event entertainment you’ll provide, and what kinds of auction items you want to include.

If your guests are predominantly younger (in years or at heart), digital marketing and social media will be more effective in promoting your event. If your guests are long-time supporters, consider highlighting new features of this year’s event as part of your promotion strategy. If your guests are outdoorsy or if they love fine dining, consider all of this when procuring your auction items.

Knowing your audience and their interests can help you personalize every guest’s experience, ensuring they’re engaged from your first promotional materials to your appreciation letter. It gives you a strategic advantage when planning your hybrid event.

2. Procure exciting auction items

Once you’ve identified your audience, you can start procuring items for your hybrid auction. Start by assembling a procurement team who can lobby for donations from local businesses, supporters, and sponsors.

Again keep your audience’s interests in mind when procuring items, ensuring they’ll be tempted to bid during the auction itself. Handbid’s list of silent auction items identifies the following items as popular options to include in your auction:

  • Game tickets
  • Tickets to concerts or museums
  • Gift baskets of smaller items
  • Movie theater rental
  • Paintings
  • Trips

To make your hybrid auction even more exciting for your guests, consider marketing select auction items to your supporters ahead of your event. Whet their bidding appetite by showing them what they might win on the night of your auction!

3. Carefully determine your starting bid and increments

Arguably the most crucially strategic step in planning your auction is determining each item’s starting bid and bid increments. Doing this is more of an art than you might think!

Start by researching the fair market value (FMV) of the items you’re auctioning off. Generally, the starting bid rests around 30% to 40% of FMV. However, keep in mind that FMV can often be subjective, so be sure to carefully find an accurate, FAIR market value so your starting bid is reasonably priced in proportion to the item’s value. You don’t want to create a starting bid or increment that is too high for your bidder, especially in your hybrid auction, since none of the bidding will take place on paper.

4. Make it easy for supporters to bid

The bidding process should be easy for your supporters, making it more enticing to participate in the hybrid auction. Consider every step of the bidding process in your silent auction planning. This includes everything from reviewing your organization’s auction item catalog to submitting bids on items, to checking out when the event ends.

When planning your hybrid auction, remember that both your online and offline audiences should use the same bidding system so you can track all bids in one place. You don’t want to have both bidding sheets and an online system because it would become very confusing for everyone involved. Consider using online auction software instead to keep everyone on the same system.

Some of the features to look for in online auction software include:

  • Mobile bidding to ease the process for your in-person audience
  • Live stream technology, so supporters at home have access to in-person engagement opportunities
  • Easy online checkout systems — collecting payment information upfront, so supporters don’t need to wait in long lines to pay for their items

5. Set auction rules ahead of time

Setting rules for your silent auction keeps everything running smoothly at the event and ensures your supporters know how to engage in the auction properly.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Bidding Rules
    • Your bidders will feel more confident in their bidding when they know what to expect. When will bidding begin, and when will it end? How will a bidder know when they’re outbid? How will bidders pay for their items? Will they need to have a credit card on file ahead of bidding.
  • Seller Guidelines
    • Be sure to communicate with your auction item sellers to clarify terms and conditions for items ahead of your event. For example, does the offer expire? For trips, are there blackout dates? If it’s a large item not on site, how will the winning bidder arrange for pickup or delivery? Make sure you know and communicate all these details before your hybrid auction goes live.
  • Legal Considerations
    • Do your research on all guidelines and legal requirements for your organization. For example, many organizations and jurisdictions will not allow certain things to be auctioned off at all. Other considerations to take into account are those around tax liability on your auction. Tax compliance varies by region so make sure you do your homework.. Will you need to charge sales tax on your items? How much, if any, of your supporters’ purchases will be tax-deductible? All this is information to know well ahead of your auction’s start day.
  • Checkout Rules
    • What will the process look like at the end of the evening when bidders want to claim their items? How will your offsite bidders receive the items they’ve won? Are there any occurrences when someone could back out of their bid? List all of this in your auction rules.

6. Always follow up and thank attendees

After the auction is over, your job isn’t over! You’ll need to follow up with all your attendees and volunteers, thanking them for their participation. Expressing your thanks in tangible ways shows supporters how much you appreciate their involvement in your auction and builds a foundation for your relationship with them.

Appreciating your donors is not only the right thing to do, it continues the donor journey, leaving the door open for future support, attendance at all of your events, and hopefully more bidding on your next silent auction! These relationships will help you turn participants into lifelong supporters.

Planning a hybrid silent auction is no easy feat, but with these tips, you’re sure to start on the right path toward your most successful auction yet!

About our guest blogger

Jeff Porter, Founder & CEO of Handbid, has spent 18 years in the nonprofit industry. In 2004 he founded the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association of Colorado where he still resides as board chair. Jeff learned early on that nonprofits desperately needed better and more affordable fundraising solutions. Leveraging his software background, he built most of the tools his charities used, and in 2011 he launched Handbid at his own fundraising event. The goal was to improve the donor experience, reduce administration and increase revenue. Handbid accomplished all of those goals, effectively doubling revenue in its debut. Nine years later, Handbid’s suite of tools has delighted over a half-million guests, generated millions of bids, and helped thousands of charities raise well over $100 million.